Cross-country running gives mom with autistic son new hope

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IDAHO FALLS — Running alongside other kids in a cross-country competition was something Nicole Wallace never thought she’s see her autistic son do.

“We tried karate and soccer. But whenever there was a loud noise he would just run away because it was really overstimulating,” Wallace says.

Eight-year-old Asher Wallace deals with both autism and anxiety. Before finding cross country Asher was very withdrawn and had a hard time saying what he needed. Loud noises would scare him from interacting with others. But even with his limitations, Asher had a desire to compete in sports.

“He would say he wanted to do it, so we tried but he just couldn’t do it,” Wallace says.

Wallace said certain coaches also weren’t used to working with children who have autism.

“The coaches haven’t been very supportive or he just can’t stay with the group so it makes it a little bit impossible,” Wallace says.

When Wallace decided to enroll Asher with her daughter’s cross country team this fall, the outlook for Asher’s capabilities began to change. With a coach willing to work with Asher and allow family members to run next to him, he had finally found a sport he could connect with.

“Jill his therapist came out with him and has done an amazing job. She and I run right alongside him. She goes to all the practices does the pushups, the hard running, and then we switch off in the races. We do half and half,” Wallace says.

The Wallace family during a cross country meet. | Photo courtesy Nicole Wallace

High Five Flyers cross country team coach Jeremy Smith says he has seen a change in Asher’s behavior over the weeks he had competed.

“I thought I noticed him smiling a lot more, he just has this huge, big smile,” Smith says. “I think kids can succeed in ways that we’re not really ready to accept as long as they have the support all in place that they need.”

Rehabilitative interventionist Jill Sullivan works with a developmental disability agency called Journeys and says she’s seen Asher go from totally uninterested in training to being engaged and competitive. She said running has helped him in many areas of his life.

“Every practice just got better, it was amazing and then this last practice he was up there with the coach showing the kids the exercises to do,” Sullivan says.

Wallace wants others to know they can have success in their families and that resources are available in their communities. Asher’s supporters say discovering the right sport for him has given him the tools to succeed as he learns to grow with his autism.

“We’ve just had so much support, I’ve never thought that I would see him run, I’ve never thought that I would see him participate in a sport,” Wallace says. “Knowing that he can do this, there’s just so much hope for his future.”